the armory show — abstraction arrives

Armory show poster

Armory Show Poster, 1913
Click image to enlarge.

Abstraction was introduced to the United States in 1913 by an exhibition so extraordinary — in the truest sense of the word — that it produced continuing waves of change throughout the arts and, indeed, the general culture of the United States for the remainder of the twentieth Century. It is difficult to overstate the public outrage or the electrifying effect on American artists generated by the International Exhibition of Modern Art — most widely known as The Armory Show for its original New York venue, the 69th Infantry Regiment Armory at Lexington Ave. and 25th Street — during its four-month, three-city tour of the United States.

Assembled as an introduction to European Modernism and to showcase comparisons between its leaders and American artists of the period, the exhibition was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (principally, the artists Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn and artist/writer Walter Pach). The sampling of Cubism, Fauvism, Symbolism, and other avant-garde European movements brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to gawk, sneer, and otherwise deride the “Explosion in a shingle factory”as one New York critic termed Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

The Armory Show Comes to the Art Institute of Chicago

Chicagoans were not altogether unfamiliar with abstraction in 1913. The Art Institute of Chicago was purchasing and exhibiting progressive art. Arthur Dove, an American artist who has been credited along with Wassily Kandinsky for moving art into complete abstraction, had shown a suite of pastel drawings in March of 1912 at W. Scott Thurber’s gallery. Located in the Fine Arts Building, the gallery’s attendance drew heavily from the lively mix of artists, musicians, and writers who frequented the informal arts center. Dove’s approach did not go unnoticed in the local press; he received reviews — many favorable — from among several of the dailies that vied for readers in the busy city.

Modernism had its supporters in Chicago. Arthur T. Aldis, a Chicago attorney and enthusiastic supporter of contemporary art, had met Davies, Kuhn, and Pach during their November expedition to Paris to select work for the show and was committed to bringing the exhibition to the Midwest. By late December, Aldis had been able to secure the commitment of the Art Institute’s board (over less-than-enthusiastic support from the Director William M. R. French) for a three-and-a-half week period immediately following its close in New York. The stage was set.

Arthur Jerome Eddy was another prominent Chicago collector. He had made the only purchase from Arthur Dove’s 1912 exhibition at the Thurber gallery, an abstract pastel drawing entitled Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces (now lost). Eddy made it a point to see the New York presentation of the Armory Show and purchased an extensive group of works: eighteen paintings — including two by Marcel Duchamp — and seven lithographs, including four by Maurice Denis. While the exhibition was in Chicago, he delivered lectures to sold out crowds at the Art Institute’s Fullerton Auditorium supporting the AAPS position and encouraging patrons to maintain an open mind as they visited the galleries.

Because of space constraints, the total number of works exhibited at the Art Institute was reduced from the approximately 1,300 hung in the Armory. Much of the American art was gone, most of the radical European art remained. The crates arrived at Union Station on March 21st and by Monday, March 24th, the day of the preview, the entire presentation — 634 works: 312 oil paintings, 57 watercolors, 120 prints, 115 drawings, and 30 sculptures — had been installed by the AIC staff according to the detailed plans supplied by the AAPS.

Chicago’s Response

dawson signature

Click the signature to read about Manierre Dawson and the Chicago Armory Show.

The introduction to European Modernism which the Society had assembled packed a wallop in Chicago. Visitors from all over the Midwest were stunned when they entered the galleries where artwork by a Who's Who of early Modern artists — Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Braque, Kirchner, and many others — challenged them to reassess their personal notions of how art should look.

The exhibition’s reputation for shock and scandal preceded its arrival and may have muted some of the more outraged responses in the press; moral indignity and downright mockery characterized Chicago’s reaction. The Chicago Tribune did not hold back. In an editorial entitled “The Cubist Art” it wrote, “The nudes pervert the ideal of physical perfection, obliterate the line which has heretofore distinguished the artistic from the lewd and obscene, and incite feelings of disgust and aversion.”

Several critics who had visited the show in New York had written articles attempting to explain what was on view to their readership. The Tribune’s Harriet Monroe mounted a pre-emptive attack by terming Matisse’s work “ ...the most hideous monstrosities ever perpetrated on long suffering art.” By the time the show opened, her opinion had softened. Matisse was conducting “. . . a search for new beauty.”

Scandal and outrage bred interest. The presentation at the Art Institute built upon the show’s standing as a cultural event. During the 23 days the Armory Show was on view in Chicago, 188,560 people visited, surpassing attendance in New York. This number of curious attendees – equal to roughly eight per cent of the city’s population at the time and averaging nearly 8,200 daily – either took advantage of free days or paid 25 cents to a dollar each (depending on time of admission) to view the “refuse for bunko artists” as George Zug termed the exhibition in his March 15th column for the Chicago Inter-Ocean.

Armory Show Dates and Venues

The International Exhibition of Modern Art was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and was exhibited in three cities in the United States over a four-month period. Manierre Dawson’s work was hung only at the Chicago venue.

February 15th – March 15th 1913
69th Infantry Regiment Armory
Lexington Ave. & 25th Street
New York, New York

March 24th– April 16th 1913
The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Ave
Chicago, Illinois

April 28th– May 19th 1913
Copley Society of Art
158 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts